Before I was a dealer, I was a collector. Indeed, this seems to be the case for most of my fellow sellers in the antiques and vintage profession. It’s certainly a logical progression. Handling, examining and acquiring pieces within your chosen collecting field for long enough makes you eager to share the wonders of these objects with others whether it’s online, through a shop or at a multitude of fairs.
It was a pair of earrings that fanned the flames of vintage costume jewellery love for me. A chance encounter, which, as Tracy Tolkien says in her ‘Collector’s Guide to Costume Jewellery’, is how most collections start. I had been looking for something to wear with a black evening gown for a special occasion. My accessories had to be different, dramatic. Eye-catching. Scrolling online my eyes were instantly drawn to a pair of rhinestone ear climbers by Kramer, New York. I purchased them. I wore them. I adored them. Moreover, I was keen to learn more about the designer who had created my new favourite earrings. My book of choice was Judith Miller’s Costume Jewellery and, with that, I was hooked. I was fascinated by the range of makers that fell under the banner of vintage costume jewellery – the beauty of the pieces, the variety in their design and their skilled construction. I was amazed by how much a piece could tell someone about the time period in which it was made and I was excited by the fact that so much of the jewellery complimented my contemporary clothes. My collection evolved with a Weiss necklace followed by a Trifari brooch, a visit to a vintage market one Sunday and then the next. Eventually, I thought about how great it could be to turn my passion into a business. I wanted to make others aware of the wonderful collecting field that is vintage costume jewellery and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s clear to see, from the millions of clubs, websites, events and literature out there, that I’m not a lone collector and haven’t been for some time. In fact, psychologist Christian Jarrett mentions that “our desire to collect became possible about 12,000 years ago, once our ancestors gave up their nomadic lifestyles and settled down in one location.” Common human traits and needs have certainly resulted in us knowing many collectors or being collectors ourselves. Jarrett describes “a phenomenon known as the endowment effect, which describes our tendency to value things more once we own them.” It’s true that, as a collector and a dealer, I strive to own important or rare pieces and so can partly blame this ‘endowment effect’ for my habit. But, I also enjoy the hunting and buying too. The ‘thrill of the chase’ is something that enamours many a collector, I’m sure. Other factors for building a collection can be, as Simon Plumbe explains, having a nostalgia for one’s childhood or wanting to show loyalty to something. These are doubtlessly a regular occurrence, as I’ve encountered many customers purchasing pieces because they remind them of their grandmother and selecting items only made by a particular designer.
Whatever your reason for collecting, it’s universally agreed that once you start you cannot stop. This isn’t only applicable to my field of vintage costume jewellery. Pop star Sophie Ellis Bextor has amassed a collection of 60 dolls, Tom Hanks collects typewriters and Reese Witherspoon collects antique linen. My friends and family are mostly collectors of antiques. But, I was nonetheless interested to hear why they were ‘bitten’ by the collecting ‘bug’. Recently, I spoke Ismael Kahn, the owner of fine antique jewellery retailer ‘Ishy Antiques’. He explained that he collects antiques because “the quality of items is often far superior to what you can find on the high street today at a lower price point.” However, spending a little more in favour of quality and longevity isn’t the only reason why Ismael collects. He points out that “it’s also nice to have unique items in your house that are conversation starters when friends and family visit.”
Collections can occasionally reach such heights that they become worthy of an exhibition, book or ground breaking auction house sale. For example, The Robert Elliot Collection of Space Memorabilia sold at auction for £113,000 in 2009. And Jo Evans’ collection of autographs sold for £36,000 at auction in 2017. However, the world of vintage costume jewellery is not without its prolific and well known collectors too. Barbara Berger’s 4000 strong collection of costume jewellery was displayed at the New York Museum of Art and Design in 2013 and was accompanied by a fabulous 260 page coffee table book! In Venice in 2015, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s collection of American costume jewellery was exhibited at the Ca D’Oro Galleria. The Italian is famously known for her art collection, but harbours a passion for vintage costume jewellery too, having amassed 1000 pieces.
During their time as collectors Berger and Rebaudengo have doubtlessly honed their knowledge and approaches. Indeed, as my experience acquiring vintage costume jewellery has grown, I have learned some key lessons too. Here are my top tips for collecting:
- Build up a database of reputable sources – dealers you can trust to buy from and ask for advice. Of course, this will only come through trial and error, but once you encounter a specialist who’s pieces you love and who’s skills you value, remember where you can visit them and how to contact them.
- Ensure that your collection is stored safely and maintained well. Always enquire about the best way to care for and preserve your pieces.
- Develop your knowledge of your chosen collecting field through books, the internet, lectures, exhibitions, film, television and club memberships.
- Specialise in an aspect of your collecting area, if you can. This will help you to become focussed when buying and researching. It may also mean that you create a coherent collection which may be of great interest and value in the future.
I currently have clients who are collecting everything from statement necklaces to early twentieth century plastics. Wherever your passion lies, pursue it, enjoy it and get collecting!